poor scientist. will blog 4 food.

the culinary adventures of a self-described foodie

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Chowing Down in Sebastopol

Well hello there! Long time, no blog.

The bf and I recently went away to Sebastopol for the weekend, and I was blown away by all of the awesome food there. So much so that I decided to actually write a blog post about it! Mostly so I don’t forget where we went, but also to serve as a guide for those of you searching for good eats in Sebastopol. Here’s a list of place we ate and drank, in chronological order:

Balletto Vineyards
We had a couple of hours to kill before checking in at our Airbnb, so we packed a picnic and went for a tasting at Balletto. Tastings were $10 per person, and our server (?) was generous with extra pours. Neither of us were blown away by any of the wines, but none of the wines were terrible either. In the end, we bought a bottle of the 2012 Syrah to enjoy with our picnic, which canceled out one of our tasting fees. They have a nice outdoor patio and were very amenable to us eating out there.
Bottom line: A fairly standard Northern California winery; nothing to write home about.

Cutting up a baguette to go with cheese, salami, and olives!

Cutting up a baguette to go with cheese, salami, and olives!

Ramen Gaijin
I was not excited about the name of this place because gaijin, which means “foreigner” in Japanese, has a xenophobic bent to it. Nevertheless, my neverending desire for noodles and the awesome Yelp reviews drew us to try this place out. We both ordered the spicy tan tan ramen, which came loaded with pork belly, a 6-minute hen egg, woodear mushrooms, red cabbage, greens, and a load of other things I’m currently forgetting. Maybe my expectations were super low, but this bowl of ramen blew my mind. Everything about it – the al dente noodles, the piping hot broth, and the top quality ingredients – was, in my mind, perfection. Yes, it was expensive at $15, but I thought it was worth every penny. I also had a delicious cocktail — can’t recall the details, but I think it was a bourbon and ginger beer combo. Very refreshing!
Bottom line: Probably one of the best bowls of ramen I’ve ever had. Highly recommended!

A cold cocktail and hot bowl of ramen at Ramen Gaijin.

A cold cocktail and hot bowl of ramen at Ramen Gaijin.

Screamin’ Mimi’s (Ice Cream)
My friend SM, a Santa Rosa native, recommended this place to me, and it’s also one of the highest rated places in Sebastopol on Yelp. Conveniently, it was just 3 doors down from Ramen Gaijin. The bf and I, being total noobs, didn’t take advantage of one of the most unique aspects of Screamin’ Mimi’s: the ability to mix whatever flavors you want, because they sell ice cream by weight. We were boring and each got a single scoop of ice cream, which was good, but I regretted not being more creative and mixing it up. Next time!
Bottom line: Try all the flavors and mix to your heart’s delight!

Hole in the Wall
We love breakfast and brunch. Hole in the Wall had fantastic reviews on Yelp and was recommended to us by our Airbnb hosts, so we were stoked. Maybe we didn’t order the right things, but neither of us thought the food was better than the average diner. I got 2 eggs over medium (bland) with potatoes (even blander) and bacon (not that exciting), with one of their famous biscuits (really disappointing, but I’ve found it’s very hard to find good biscuits outside of the south). TC got the biscuits and gravy, which he thought was just OK. There was quite a bit of Italian sausage in the gravy, and since he’s not a fan of fennel, it didn’t go over very well with him. We saw some fancy cast-iron thing that other people got (the internet tells me it’s a Dutch cake with caramelized apples), so maybe that’s what we should’ve ordered too.
Bottom line: Pretty standard breakfast place. Don’t get your hopes up about the biscuits.

King Falafel
After a heavy breakfast, we wanted something lighter and more casual for lunch, so we decided to try King Falafel, another Yelp favorite. This is one of those places that, if not for Yelp, I might not have tried because of its location and the set up (there’s a small grocery section with Middle Eastern foods). We both got the regular falafel sandwich, which was SO GOOD. Unlike most of the falafel sandwiches I’ve had, which were bland and dry, King Falafel’s signature sandwich was the perfect blend of textures and flavors.
Bottom line: Highly recommended! I would love to go back and try non-falafel items.

Wild Flour Bread (Freestone, CA)
Another recommendation from SM, this renowned bakery was on our way to Occidental (see below), so we made sure to stop by and take a look. After trying their famous sticky bread, which we thought was good but not great, we decided to get a loaf of their just-as-famous fougasse bread with cheese, garlic, and rosemary (I think). Apparently, they change the “filling” of the fougasse; various Yelp reviews have listed items as varied as potatoes, cheese, garlic, mushroom, peppers, and rosemary. It’s pricey at $7 a loaf (cash only), but well worth the money. Plus, they’re pretty generous with free samples and really friendly too!
Bottom line: Unique bakery in a tranquil setting. Worth the drive!

Barley and Hops Tavern (Occidental, CA)
We went to Barley and Hops in the hopes of killing 3 birds with one stone: (1) a place to watch the Warriors playoff game (2) with good food, and (3) located in a cute, small town (i.e., not Santa Rosa). Unfortunately we were thwarted by some local regulars commandeering the remote control, who kept switching back and forth between the Giants baseball game and the Warriors playoff game. This was particularly frustrating given that TC had called in advance to confirm that they would be showing the Warriors game. We didn’t end up eating there, but from what I could see (and smell), the fare looked quite good. They also had a large selection of beers on tap.
Bottom line: Cute pub, but not ideal for watching sports (lesson learned).

Viva Mexicana
TC loves Mexican food, so we searched Yelp and came upon Viva Mexicana. True to the reviews, the food was great and the owner was super friendly. We also enjoyed the vibrant decor. I got the chicken mole, while TC ordered the cod special. We were both really happy with our food.
Bottom line: Great Mexican food, served with a smile. If we lived in Sebastopol, we’d probably be regulars.

The best chicken mole I've had in the U.S. (The best mole ever was in Mexico - of course.)

The best chicken mole I’ve had in the U.S. (The best mole ever was in Mexico – of course.)

Enjoying a coconut horchata at Viva Mexicana!

Enjoying a coconut horchata at Viva Mexicana!

Don Julio’s Rincon Latin Grill and Pupusa’s (Rohnert Park, CA)
We were intrigued by Don Julio’s super high Yelp ratings, so we decided we’d stop there on our way home (it’s 5 miles south of Sebastopol in Rohnert Park). We both ordered 1 pupusa each, and TC got the sopes while I tried the sweet tamale. TC loved his sopes and thought the pupusa was just OK, whereas I really enjoyed my pupusa, but wasn’t a big fan of the sweet tamale. Pupusas sometimes don’t agree with me (and I’ll leave it at that), but I had no issues with the pupusas at Don Julios. I appreciated that our server (maybe the owner?) warned us that the horchata was made with cow’s milk and not from rice milk or powder. (Lactards beware!)
Bottom line: Don Julio’s is located just off of US-101, so if you’re driving through the area and you’re hungry for some authentic El Salvadoran cuisine, definitely stop by.

Did I mention that we ordered way too much food?

Did I mention that we ordered way too much food? Clockwise, from top left: sopes, pupusa, curtido (“slaw”), chips, plantains, beans, sweet tamale with mango salsa, pupusa (with beans, cheese, and pork), and hot sauce.

Rasta goats near our Airbnb. No, we didn't eat them, but we were pretty fascinated by them!

Rasta goats near our Airbnb. No, we didn’t eat them, but we were pretty fascinated by them!


Green Island Getaway

Hello! So sorry for the radio silence. Things have been hectic around here… so hectic that these photos of our trip to Green Island (aka Lu Dao) have been sitting in a folder, edited, and ready to be posted for over a month now. Yikes! The good news is that move is now complete, which means I should have more time to blog. I also know that I promised y’all a post about my one year anniversary of leaving academia — don’t worry, I have not forgotten! That will be forthcoming, hopefully before the end of 2012 (and sadly, at the rate I’ve been blogging, I think this is a fairly accurate assessment).

Anyway! As a reminder — back in July/August, TC and I went to visit my family in Taiwan. We spent a majority of our time in Taipei, but I thought it would be fun to go on a short 3-4 day trip, just the two of us. We decided on Green Island, mostly because it sounded lovely and because it was located off the southeast coast of Taiwan, a place I had never explored before. Also, the coral reefs off the coast were supposed to be great for snorkeling. I was psyched.

Planning this trip was relatively labor intensive, since most of the island’s homestays haven’t established English webpages or booking sites. After hours of searching for lodging, I finally found Xiang-Ding Homestay (note: the website is only in Chinese), an affordable place that looked clean and had air conditioning. I was able to book online through Agoda for $40/night. (FYI, summer months are the high season, so it probably costs less other times of the year… though the ferry service is also less frequent and less dependable.)

Early Tuesday morning, we took the ferry from Taitung to Green Island. The tail end of a monsoon was still lingering over Eastern Taiwan, and boy did we feel it during this ferry ride! The ferry is notoriously nicknamed the “Barf Barge” by travelers due to the frequently choppy seas between Taiwan and Green Island. It was only a 50 minute ride, but I didn’t want to take any chances. I took 1 Bonine (anti-motion sickness medicine) and stared at the same place on the wall for the whole ride. All around us, people were throwing up into their barf bags. I felt so bad for the ferry worker whose job it was to collect the bags at the end of the journey. Yuck! Luckily, I did not get sick and neither did TC.

Originally, we were going to spend only one night on Green Island, thinking that we’d take the first ferry there, have 1.5 days to explore the relatively small island, and take the last ferry back to Taitung. However, with the nasty weather, we decided to extend our stay by another day to maximize our island getaway. It was a great decision.

The whole island is only ~19 km/11.8 miles in circumference, which made getting around very easy. After we got off the ferry, we met up with our homestay host, whom we nicknamed “Tony.” Tony took us to a nearby scooter rental place — the island is so relaxed that you can basically walk up to any scooter and it will have a key in the ignition, ready to go. Tony had a brief exchange with the owner and shortly after, we were off! Rentals were extremely cheap – only NT$300 (US$9) per day! I was very grateful for TC’s expert scooter driving skills. I thought about driving for one second, but chickened out. One of my favorite things about Green Island was simply driving around on the main island road.  The scenery was beautiful at every turn. I wanted to make a video, but chickened out of that too. It was too hard/scary to take a video AND hang on to TC at the same time while scootering. (Yes, I’m a wimp.) Hopefully, the pictures will give you an idea of the breathtaking scenery we encountered.

As for sights — there are a good number of them, though I’m not sure any of them are “must see.” You can pretty much see all of the sights from the main road (and they are well-marked in Chinese and English), so it’s easy to drive by and decide if you want to check things out. One of the touristy things we didn’t do was to visit the outdoor salt-water hot springs. I think the main reason we didn’t go was because it was too hot to go during the day, but then it got too crowded at night.

The main highlight for me was when I went snorkeling with Tony’s brother “Ralph,” who led daily group trips for guests at the homestay. TC opted not to go because we had seen snorkelers the day before, and frankly, what they were doing (hanging on to safety rings in full-length rented wetsuits in groups of 5-10) did NOT look all that fun. However, snorkeling was one of the things I was most excited about this trip, so despite that initial impression, I decided that I wanted to go anyway. Besides, it was only going to cost NT$300 for an hour of guided snorkeling – transportation and wetsuit included. Putting on that still moist, rental wetsuit was quite unpleasant — definitely the low-light of the outing. However, the second I dipped my face under the water — we hadn’t even gone out very far — I forgot all about the gross wetsuit. There were dozens of brightly colored fish and all sorts of cool corals right under me! I’ve only been snorkeling twice previously: once in a fairly barren area of Puerto Rico and once in Hawaii, where I saw a sea turtle. This was definitely the best out of the bunch. Because I was the sole guest who wanted to snorkel that day, and since I had snorkeled before, Ralph took me to a less crowded area and let me start exploring on my own without the safety ring. It was awesome. I really would’ve been happy to just float there and stare at everything for hours. Unfortunately, Ralph insisted that I feed the fish with bread so that they would come to me and I could even touch a few. Then he insisted that I touch some of the coral… something that I was always taught NOT to do because it’s not good for the health of the coral. Luckily, I’m not such a great diver, so I feigned some attempts without really touching anything and blamed it on my lack of skill.

A couple of surprising things about Green Island:
– There are no natural sandy, swimmable beaches due to the rocky coastline and reefs right off the shore. There is one swim area near the lighthouse that is protected by a wall of rocks.
– Despite its touristy nature, there is very little English written or spoken. For example, Tony and Ralph, the two brothers in their 20’s at our homestay, did not speak English even though they’re in the hospitality business. I think we would’ve had a much harder time if I didn’t speak Mandarin and read Chinese (though probably still doable through gestures — people were nice, for the most part). The one time that the language barrier ended up being a glaring issue was during a group tour with Tony. As we stopped at various locations, he talked about the history or significance of where we were… which, with my kindergarten-level Chinese, I could barely comprehend, let alone translate for TC.

As for food, we ate well. There was a small family-owned, hole-in-the-wall eating establishment (I wouldn’t call it a restaurant) around the corner from our homestay. Pretty much everything we had there was good: fried rice, noodles with fish sauce, and soup. The beer was super cheap too! About US$1/can. One night, we went to a DIY barbecue place. It was NT$299 per person for all you can eat meat and veggies. The island is known for 2 foods: deer and sea grass. We had deer fried rice the first day, but later found out that the deer meat was not actually from the island. The native deer are not hunted for meat, as the population is not big enough to serve as a food supply. I tried sea grass in a shaved ice drink, which was pretty good, but mostly due to the other ingredients, I think. The sea grass itself is sort of slimy.

If you’re planning a trip to Green Island and have any questions, please leave a comment below or send me an email at willblog4food [at] gmail [dot] com.
I’m happy to pass on any information or tips.

Without further ado, here are the photos. Enjoy!

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A Brief Stop in Taitung

Welcome to the 2nd post in a series about my Taiwan trip! In case you missed it, the first part is here.

I started writing this post and was 3 paragraphs deep when I realized, “Jen, this is SO BORING.” So, I started over, with the goal of being as brief, informative, and interesting as possible. What better way than by using bullet points? Bullet vacay recap! Woot woot!

  • Where: Taitung
  • Trip duration: 24 hours
  • How did we get there: train from Taipei that took ~4.5 hours. Make sure you get a reserved seat!
  • Why: Taitung was en route to Green Island. Also, I had heard good things about it from a friend.
  • What we did: dropped off bags at our hotel; went to get lunch at a famous noodle spot; walked around for a bit (not much to see); bought fruit at the infamous fruit street; checked in; took a nap that was supposed to be 1 hour but ended up being 2 or 3; got denied at Mabanai, a famous indigenous restaurant, after taking a taxi there (They turned us away, saying that they do not seat parties of 2 –WHAT? WHY?? Also, we were very surprised that it was listed in Lonely Planet guidebook if it had those kind of policies); wandered around and got denied at a second place; third time was the charm — delicious!; walked back to the hotel and crashed; took a ferry early the next morning for Green Island!
  • Hotel: Traveler Hotel. I was very pleased with our experience here. It’s nothing fancy, but what can you expect for $40/night? It was clean and had AC, as well as a mini-fridge.
  • Misc: Expect to drop a lot of money on taxis. The new train station, downtown Taitung, and the ferry landing are very far apart from each other. Each fare was NTD$200-300. We also had one driver take us on a circuitous route. 😦
  • Bottom line: Would I recommend Taitung as a destination? No. It’s fine as a stopover en route to Green Island or Orchid Island, but it’s too small to have the conveniences of a bigger city like Taipei (transportation, food choices, activities) and too big to be charming.

And now, the exciting part — pictures!

The view from the train. We passed a lot of farms and mountains.

One of the famous noodle shops in Taitung. They are famous for a thick rice noodle dish called bi-dai-bak 米苔目. Unfortunately, I don’t have the name for the restaurant, but it was just around the corner from our hotel.

A large bowl of 米苔目 was only NTD$40 (US$1.35). The noodles are topped with meat sauce, dried fish flakes, dried scallions/garlic, and fresh green onions. I added a fish ball for NTD$5 (18 cents). Scrumptious!

Ready to eat!

A view of the dining room. This space was recently renovated, but the shop had been around for many decades. The owner even came over to greet us.

As mentioned above, we had some trouble finding a restaurant for dinner. After wandering around for an hour in the rain, we finally stumbled upon a cute little restaurant called Michi. My understanding is that the restaurant specializes in local, seasonal, and organic foods. Just our cup of tea! The food was flavorful and the owner was very friendly and helpful. Unfortunately, I’ve lost the business card, but it’s in one of of the main streets downtown, close to the night market and other restaurants.

TC and I both got the beef special. Clockwise, from top left: appetizer/salad (mushrooms?), sauteed greens, fried tofu, watermelon slices, braised beef, rice, and soup. All for about US$9 each, including beer.

Even though we got the braised beef and rice set meal, everyone else there was eating hot pot. It’s just like the Taiwanese to be eating hot soup in the middle of summer! I’ll always think of Michi fondly, because up until we sat down for that meal, our night had been going all wrong. It’s great how a good meal (and a beer or two) can help you re-center and feel better instantly.

Bon appetit!

Stay tuned for the next installment of our Taiwan travelogue, where I’ll recap our adventures in Green Island!